Gradual demise of a thin southern Laurentide ice sheet recorded by Mississippi drainage

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At the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), about 21,000 years before present, land-based ice sheets held enough water to reduce global mean sea level by 130 metres1. Yet after decades of study, major uncertainties remain as to the distribution of that ice2. Here we test four reconstructions of North American deglacial ice-sheet history3,4,5,6 by quantitatively connecting them to high-resolution oxygen isotope (δ18O) records from the Gulf of Mexico7,8,9,10,11 using a water mixing model12. For each reconstruction, we route meltwater3,4,5,6 and seasonal runoff13,14,15,16 through the time-evolving Mississippi drainage basin, which co-evolves with ice geometry3,4,5,6 and changing topography as ice loads deform the solid Earth and produce spatially variable sea level in a process known as glacial isostatic adjustment17. The δ18O records show that the Mississippi-drained southern Laurentide ice sheet contributed only 5.4 ± 2.1 metres to global sea level rise, of which 0.66 ± 0.07 metres were released during the meltwater pulse 1A event 14,650–14,310 years before present18, far less water than previously thought5,12,19. In contrast, the three reconstructions based on glacial isostatic adjustment3,4,5 overpredict the δ18O-based post-LGM meltwater volume by a factor of 1.6 to 3.6. The fourth reconstruction6, which is based on ice physics, has a low enough Mississippi-routed meltwater discharge to be consistent with δ18O constraints, but also contains the largest LGM North American ice volume. This suggests that modelling based on ice physics may be the best way of matching isotopic records while also sequestering enough water in the North American ice sheets to match the observed LGM sea level fall1.

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Figure 1: Construction of the oxygen isotope record.
Figure 2: Data–model intercomparison.
Figure 3: Reconstructed evolution of the Mississippi drainage basin.

Change history

  • 30 October 2013

    In the print version, a citation to ref. 1 in the first sentence is inadvertently missing; however, the online PDF and HTML versions are correct.


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We thank F. He, B. Otto-Bliesner and Z. Liu for supplying their TraCE-21K general circulation model outputs. The Climate Prediction Center Merged Analysis of Precipitation (CMAP) precipitation data were provided by the NOAA/OAR/ESRL PSD from their website at A.D.W. was supported by the US Department of Defense through the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship Program, and by the US National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under grant number DGE 1144083. J.X.M. acknowledges support from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and Harvard University.

Author information




A.D.W. built and ran the drainage basin analysis routine, compiled and corrected the δ18O data, performed the data–model comparisons, and interpreted the results. J.X.M. provided the global sea level model outputs and post-processing software. C.W. produced a large part of the δ18O data. R.S.A. assisted with idea development. A.D.W. wrote the manuscript, with input and suggestions from R.S.A., J.X.M. and C.W.

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Correspondence to Andrew D. Wickert.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Meltwater discharge histories computed from each of the flow-routed ice models.

For comparison, the δ18Oivc-sw data have been converted to meltwater discharge using the mixing model (equation (1)). The negative discharge shown in the data indicates that the LIS was growing from precipitation inputs during the Port Bruce Readvance24, significantly reducing net Mississippi discharge (precipitation minus evapotranspiration, minus ice sheet growth) during that time. The modern mean Mississippi discharge, for reference, is 16,790 m3 s−1 (ref. 38).

Extended Data Table 1 Ice-sheet and Mississippi drainage reconstructions

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Wickert, A., Mitrovica, J., Williams, C. et al. Gradual demise of a thin southern Laurentide ice sheet recorded by Mississippi drainage. Nature 502, 668–671 (2013).

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